This week has been a very trying, depressing and unusual time for me. What’s happening on my campus has left me in a very uncertain and gloomy mood. As many writers and bibliophiles do in times like these, today I reached for my favorite book, which in my case happens to be The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. That I did so today, December 6, is especially resonant, considering the book and its ending–which is what I reread today–involve Pearl Harbor, the 73rd anniversary of which is tomorrow.
Herman Wouk is a giant in American letters and also in modern Jewish intellectualism. Wouk, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for The Caine Mutiny, returned to the central experience of his life–World War II–when he penned his two mammoth epics about the war, each over 1000 pages, The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance (1978). In the 1980s the books were turned into the biggest TV miniseries ever made, starring Robert Mitchum. The movies are awesome, but the novels themselves are even richer and more satisfying.
The Winds of War is a sprawling story with an ensemble cast of characters. The main protagonist is Victor “Pug” Henry, a career U.S. Navy officer who has been semi-happily married to his wife, Rhoda, for 25 years. They have three children, Warren, Byron and Madeline, whose individual adventures form the subplots of the book. The novel opens in 1939 just as Pug is being sent to Nazi Germany on assignment as the U.S. naval attache. As such he witnesses the opening phases of World War II, including Hitler’s attack on Poland, the London Blitz, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Just as Pug, who is friendly with President Roosevelt, gets his dream job–command of a battleship–the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. The novel ends with him going off to war, and in an uncertain frame of mind, much like mine this week.
I will illustrate the various aspects of the plot of The Winds of War by including clips from the 1983 TV movie. These embeds are keyed to play from the relevant section. Here’s the attack on Pearl Harbor; watch until 1:27:03.
This is just the bare outline of what happens. (Spoiler alert: read no farther if you don’t want more details). With its multilayered plot, what Wouk does in the last 100 or so pages is to pile disaster upon top of disaster, with the pace of the blows coming at the characters (and the reader) one after the other. They are also all linked to each other and to the broader historical plot. In November 1941, Pug Henry has just flown from a diplomatic mission in Moscow to the Philippines, trying to get to Hawaii to take command of the battleship California. While in Moscow he fell in love with Pamela Tudsbury, a British woman 20 years his junior, the daughter of a British war correspondent. Unbeknownst to Pug, his wife Rhoda, back home in Washington, has been having an affair and is about to write a letter confessing this and asking for a divorce. The reader knows this is coming but Pug doesn’t.
In Manila, where he was stationed in the 1920s, Pug meets his son Byron, a submarine officer, and they go to see the old house where the kids grew up. Byron’s wife Natalie, who is Jewish, is trapped by diplomatic snafus in Italy (this is a major subplot of the book). As Pug and Byron reminisce about the old days they comment that a military family is like “raising a family of tumbleweeds.” The action then switches Rome, where Natalie and her uncle are warned to take a risky refugee ship to Palestine to get out of Hitler’s clutches; then comes December 7, and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Pug’s ship, the California, was in real life a casualty of the Pearl Harbor attack. In the book too she is a total loss, and Pug witnesses the damage from the window of a PBY patrol plane on his second attempt to get to Hawaii, the first having been aborted by news of the attack. He goes to visit his other son Warren, a dive bomber pilot on the aircraft carrier Enterprise, who is stationed in Honolulu. His mail is forwarded. Guess what’s in it? Rhoda’s divorce letter.
Pug Henry, trying to relax at his son’s house, receives a fateful letter. This is the same video as above, but begins at the appropriate scene. Watch until 2:08:10.
Then Pug suffers another blow. After a Japanese air raid on Manila on December 10, 1941, news comes that his son’s submarine was sunk. Now, in the story, Pug has lost it all: his career (the California), his wife who is cheating on him and wants a divorce, and his son. Yet he knows that, as the United States is now at war, his duty calls urgently, for really the first time in his life. Worrying about his career for 25 years has been small potatoes. Now he has a war to win, but as it begins, the United States is losing badly. The emotional wallop of these disasters, political and personal, are incredibly poignant the way Wouk writes about them.
Then he has his protagonist do something that’s very risky in a book, but rings true as to what a real person–especially one like Pug Henry–might do in a situation like that. Far from taking his wife’s confession as a green light to go be with Pamela, he decides he must patch things up with Rhoda and try to salvage whatever remains of their long life together. He writes a letter to her (much of The Winds of War is told in letters), giving her an opportunity to recant and suggesting that if she does he’ll forgive and forget. He puts the personal blow in the context of the world disaster shaking them. “Ever since I few into Pearl Harbor on the Clipper, after seeing Wake and Midway in flames,” he writes, “I’ve been living on a straight diet of disaster. Your letter almost fitted in as something normal. Almost.” Just as he sends the letter–long before it reaches his wife–in the book’s final pages he gets a telegram from her asking for just the forgive-and-forget chance his letter offers her.
I’ve read The Winds of War so many times that I’ve worn out several successive copies. This one is about my 4th. I had to reinforce the cover with packing tape. This volume was with me on my Wacken trip last summer.
There’s something utterly epic about the ending of The Winds of War, and it has less to do with the literary spectacle of exploding battleships and zooming Zeros as one might expect. Wouk carefully weaves the world-shaking events he describes into the rich fringes of a very human drama, in which the problems of the characters are paramount. As an author Wouk cares more about Pug Henry’s marriage than he does about the outcome of World War II, and as a result, the reader adopts those same priorities. We (the readers) have the luxury of knowing ahead of time how World War II comes out, so the pressure is off to some extent, but unless we’ve read the book before we don’t know if Pug gets back together with his wife. His quiet determination to do both–fight the war, as is his duty, and save his marriage, if he can–is exactly the same agonizing choice any one of us might make, especially against the backdrop of stressful and traumatic events. The very best books bring out the human in all of us. The Winds of War does that admirably.
What I experienced in my own life this week cannot compare to the horror of Pearl Harbor. But it was a very dramatic week for me, in which stressful and unusual events have dominated my waking hours. At this writing I don’t know how the strike or the terrible situation in New York City will turn out, just as, on December 11, 1941, Pug Henry could not know what lay in store for him or his country as they plunged into war. Seeing those much greater (fictional) struggles in the lives of compelling characters, and drawing from them strength to deal with your own, is the highest form of sustenance a work of literature can provide, and the books that can provide it are among the very best ever written.